A metaphor allows us to understand one concept in terms of another, enriching our mental imagery and imbuing concepts with meaningful attributes. Metaphors are well studied in design, for example, in branding, communication and the design of computer interfaces. Less well appreciated is that our understanding of fundamental design concepts, including design itself, is metaphorical. When we treat design as a process of exploration or when we get together to “bounce ideas off each other” we understand the abstract concepts of design and ideas metaphorically; ideas don’t literally bounce, nor are we literally exploring when we design. Our research is a descriptive study of the metaphors employed in design. It is the first phase in a longer research effort to understand the impact of design metaphors on creativity. We investigated whether design authors employed different metaphors for the overall design process and consequently for core design concepts. To address this hypothesis we analyzed the language used in the concept generation chapters of nine widely used engineering design textbooks. We coded each metaphorical phrase, such as “finding another route to a solution”, and determined the core metaphors in use for common design concepts including, ideas, problems, solutions, concepts, design, the design process, user needs and others. We confirmed that authors with differing views of design do indeed emphasize different metaphors for core design concepts. We close by discussing the implications of some common metaphors, in particular that Ideas Are Physical Objects.

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